Days of National Mourning

May, 2009

  1. Days of National Mourning

    May 31, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    As an outsider who nevertheless wishes to understand minutest details of Bulgarian life, I must admit to feeling confused about “a day of National Mourning.” It would be interesting not only to know the criteria on which decisions are made to nominate such a day, but also something about the expectations of public behavior.

    Some years ago I arrived at the Burgas theatre, really looking forward to seeing a reputedly exciting new production. At the time the theatre was performing only one night a week, and this would be my only opportunity to see a Bulgarian play that year. Arriving at the square in front of the theatre, I was surprised to find it deserted. The theatre was dark. The doors were locked. I checked my ticket. I looked about. I hailed a passer- by. He shrugged at my ignorance. Didn’t I know that a day of National Mourning had been declared? Of course on such a day theatres would not be working.

    It was the day after the bus crash in Montenegro, where a number of Bulgarian school-children died in a river while teachers stood on the bus roof and local heroic Moslem gypsies tried to save the drowning kids. So as I walked back through the town I indulged my feeling of guilt. Yes, I was frustrated and angry, that I had been denied my annual theatrical experience. But I should learn to respect another country’s culture. I passed the cinema. It was working. I passed restaurants and bars. They were not only working but heaving with customers. The monotonous voice of the September Cinema bingo caller could still be heard over the racket of hot pop-corn. Music spilled out from everywhere. On the main street, Bulgaria’s day of National Mourning was a day like any other.

    So to this year, I had tickets for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I am always excited by Bulgarian Shakespeare productions. Unhampered by historical reverence, they can make a sixteenth century text relevant, gripping and entertaining – even to a group of badly behaved school children.

    “We’re off to the theatre!” I tell my neighbour on the stairs. She shakes her head doubtfully. “Today’s a day of National Mourning. Haven’t you heard about the crash at Yambol?” I confess ignorance and so learn about the sixteen pensioners killed in a bus with no brakes – a bus that had somehow escaped any kind of technical check for at least the last ten years.

    My heart sinks. And this time I feel less guilty in expressing my frustration. If theatres closed in England every time there was a bad road accident, they’d go bankrupt. But it turned out As You Like It was not cancelled. We sat in a full auditorium but before the lights dimmed, an actor addressed us in solemn sonorous voice, apologizing for having to perform on such a day. “We are actors. And we have to play.” He sounded almost resentful. Suitably chastened, we all stood for a minute’s silence.

    Then the lights went down and the magic began. Shakespeare’s rather formal pastoral idyll – so often such a yawn in UK theatres – was transformed into a riotously funny sharp commentary on sexual and class relations. Visually it was stunning. Should I feel guilty that the actors had transformed a day of National Mourning into a night of local celebration?

    I read in the newspaper today that a deputy minister has been sacked. His crime was that he attended a birthday party on the day of National Mourning. Of course it wasn’t just any birthday party. It was a fund raising event (?) A cross section of the Bulgarian elite had assembled at a swish restaurant to celebrate the existence on this earth of Ventsi Rangelov, the Chief of Emergency Services. Was there music? Yes, it could be heard from the street by sanctimonious hordes of reporters. Was there dancing? Of course not! And have big contributions been made to unnamed charities? Of course they have. Are Opposition politicians outraged by this insult to sixteen dead pensioners? Of course they are.

    Well I suppose for this outsider, a series of unpolitically correct questions are raised. How many people have to die in a single incident for a day of national mourning to be declared? What if the victims of a terrible road accident had been Gypsies or Turks? Would the Cup Final or a scheduled AC/DC concert be cancelled because of some unforeseen tragic incident. And are Days of National Mourning really a pretext for avoiding some uncomfortable questions about vehicle inspection in Bulgaria and the ways in which at every level and in every context safety is being compromised by money under the table?

    Perhaps the chief of Emergency Services could best answer these questions – or better still the improbably beautiful Minister for Extraordinary Situations.

    “All the world’s a stage,” Jacques declares in As You Like It. And Days of National Mourning could be seen as just part of a spectacle designed to distract the public from raw truths. Except of course the public is all too aware of raw truths and furthermore does not seem to take Days of National Mourning too seriously.

  2. Cold northern git samples some emotional cinema

    May 25, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    Прогноза (Forecast) Bulgaria, 2008
    Directed by: Zornitsa Sophia
    Writing credits: Emil Bonev, Alexey Kozhuharov
    Cast: Teodora Duhovnikova, Kresimir Mikic, Deyan Slavchev–Deo,
    Assen Blatechki, Julian Vergov, Stefan Shterev

    Quick pitch: Improbable Croatian media magnate pursues Bulgarian beauty all the way from London to a Turkish island where she is windsurfing with unlikely group of Balkan men. Through magnificent sulks and identity crises love wins through.

    What the git learnt:

    Rule number one : all kinds of bad, mad, irrational and sulky behavior are excused if you are of Balkan origin and especially if you are in love. You can bash your bicycle into some strange man’s car in the middle of London, suggest he take you out to dinner, demand he take you back to his place indefinitely but not for sex, discover that he owns a TV station, change your appearance to shimmering blonde, buy him an unwanted goldfish, take the moral high ground over his improbably shallow cynicism, claim to be a journalist and blag a reporter’s job from him, then stand in front of a TV camera crew and say nothing for take after take, then cut up all his clothes, steal his windsurfing board and cross Europe dressed like a prostitute.

    Rule number two: if you find yourself in a decadent western flat where a sharp noise will activate the lights, why not slap your partner’s face really hard. In the hopes that he will retaliate – then you can provide a lights show for the neighbours. It just goes to prove that money and a smart pad in London does not give you identity or happiness. “An address is not a home.”

    Rule number three: when crossing Turkey with your brother and a company of windsurfers make sure you join in a manly pissing contests from a high bridge even if you are a woman. Otherwise you might get left behind and a sulky expression will not save you from lecherous lorry drivers – especially as your skimpy top seems to have lost all sticking power.

    Rule number Four: Balkan peace is possible providing there is wind for windsurfing. Otherwise some provocative journalist will get under the skins of the Bulgarians, the Macedonian and the Serb and suddenly knives are drawn. The Serb calls the Macedonian a southern Serb. Bulgarians add a pepper smeared in toothpaste to red and green hang them round their necks and sing out their defiance and pride in giving the world bacilli and viruses.

    Rule number five: real men cry when their fishing tackle and maggots are blown up. They suddenly discover their Balkan identity. It gives them super-strength to shift heavy rocks to spell out the words: FORGIVE ME.

    Rule number six: Balkan women’s hearts melt when they spot a rocky plea for forgiveness. They gaze out from their cave and allow rear access to their lover.

    Rule number seven: Turks are suckers for love. Even hard fisted lorry drivers will melt when told that the guy who has barred their way onto the ferry is in love.

    Rule number eight: If you have been swept out to sea on a surf board and been exposed to the elements for 48 hours, you don’t need any water to revive you. A Croatian kiss will restore you to full health and even put bounce into your hair.

    In London the film was described as being part of a new genre of “optimistic realism” – no doubt to counter the success of Romanian films whose realism is decidedly negative. And indeed the tone is remarkably sunny. Despite all the outrageous behavior, no-one is hurt and there is nothing to please Volen Ziderov. Turkish rescue services are assiduous in trying to rescue the silly Bulgarian girl and the search is only stopped by the proximity of Greek territorial waters.
    In short, times of national crisis calls for happy slappy stereotypes, romance and oodles of Euro-folk music.

  3. First ten minutes in Burgas again

    May 25, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    There have been some developments in Burgas, evident within the first ten minutes of our arrival. The town Council has invested in neatly restored pavements and a fleet of pickup trucks.

    The pavements are a sight for any eyes used to the cracked and heaving obstacle courses of countless years. You must remember how loose broken slabs would pivot and release an ankle drenching shower of hitherto invisible foul water The paving stones are now set flat and neat ; their clean expanses are an invitation to the aged, the infirm and the Abiturentka (celebrating High School graduate) striding out confidently towards her ball in shiny dress and stiletto heels.

    We stop behind another car –just opposite the Technical College, in order to pay our TV and Internet bills. As Annie hunches by the SKAT shack window, I sit admiring the glistening new pavement from the driver’s seat of a car that has just crossed Europe. As I blink at the clean level expanse of geometric heaven, I become aware – almost too late – of the arrival of a truck at my off-side. It takes me but a second to comprehend the purpose of its crane and swinging chains. It stops beside the car in front. A young man leaps down from the cab, looking purposeful. I give Annie a toot. She is of course in the midst of some impenetrable bureaucratic wrangle regarding our status. I put the car into reverse just as a second truck draws up beside me. I am now nearly boxed in. I know the score. They want to hoist my car into the air – with me inside it if necessary – and transport me to some God-forsaken dust pitch somewhere in the still derelict Communist industrial zone, where I will sit contemplating rusting pipes and plastic Bila bags blowing in the wind till Annie comes and rescues me with wads of cash.

    In London the clampers and pick-up boys are merciless. Paid by results, they are often partially reformed criminals ready to extort eye-watering sums from motorists who have no choice but to pay – even when they had originally parked their cars legally. But this is Bulgaria where a threat is sufficient to maintain manly pride. Alerted by the neighbours the driver of the car in front of me appears, jumps into his car and is allowed to drive off unhindered after receiving an ear-bashing from the now purposeless young man. I breathe a sigh of relief as I too am waved on my way.

    As I drive up to the New Post Office intersection, I realize my mistake. I should not have parked safely on the road, where, by the way, I was obstructing no-one. I should have followed the Bulgarian example and parked on the pavement. The new spotless carefully aligned pavement continues to provide much needed parking spaces for harassed drivers and so wobbling pensioners and tottering newly graduated schoolgirls are still forced out into the road.

    Still the stretches of visible pavement are very impressive. And I realize that a local election must be imminent. In Communist times, urban regeneration only occurred when President Todor Zhivkov was scheduled to pay one of his lightning visits. Then any reconstituted pavements would be covered by artificially enthused workers and pupils, waving flags and banners provided by party agitators. Now in the democratic cycle, local politicians have to turn their attention away from the daily burden of self aggrandizement and seek out visible ways of placating the electorate. As those most likely to vote are over sixty, what better way to gain votes than to improve the pavements? Drivers of all ages will be so busy trying to find new places to park that they will have no time to express their frustration.

  4. Serendipity – ancient sites and industrial wasteland

    May 24, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    To Romania – where unlike Bulgaria very little is being rebuilt. Town centres contain baroque and art nouveau buildings alongside crumbling panel blocks. Even the capital Bucharest features few of the post modernist developments that obscure the views of Vitosha and crowd the once empty spaces in Sofia. But as in Bulgaria remains of Communist dereliction are ubiquitous and are often in such close proximity to historic sites that a sense of wonder is often tinged with that necessary melancholy that should accompany a moment of beauty.

    On town outskirts, shopping outlets and new shiny factories sit side by side with the all too visible communist heritage of stark deserted hulks. Here a smart cut lawn fronts the glass frontage of an aspiring electronics firm. There a heap of rusting pipes in a dusty yard draws the eyes to the graffitied off white walls and smashed windows of yet another derelict communist workplace. All this machinery –what was it for? All these distorted chimneys – what did they disgorge into the air? And the piping, that goes on for miles, and even surrounds towns like a weird dystopian defense system – what is its purpose now?

    But let’s go and see something historic! Hunedoara contains what our guidebook describes as the finest castle in Romania – once the home of Janos Hunyadi, national hero in both Romania and Hungary, victor over the Turks at the battle of Belgrade.

    We approach a town that looks like a cross between Pernik and Kremikovtsi. – a dusty landscape of strange shaped ovens, soaring chimneys, rusting dinosaur machinery, and blank grey walls of long deserted buildings. The whole town is an industrial zone – it must have been once Communism’s pride and joy – a paradise where there would always be work for everyone. One can almost see Ceausescu waving his hand to ecstatic crowds amid the now forlorn residential blocks. Was there a reason for surrounding this historic site with such ugliness? No doubt Ceausescu could point to how far Romania has evolved from medieval tyranny!

    For lurking behind the factories which now provide little or no work is the Hunyadi castle – the end point of our excursion away from main route to Bulgaria. Set into a steep valley beyond one of the steel works, the outer walls rise sheer into the sky from a chattering stream below. Crane your neck and marvel at the conical towers that decorate the sky like ladies’ hats from a courtly romance.

    You enter the castle over a high draw bridge. At the gate you have yet another chance to look back and compare the two worlds. Once those chimneys would have been belching smoke. Turn back and walk into the courtyard. An ornate stone staircase leads to a renaissance upper hall. This was built to specifications laid down by Bethlen Gabor – another Romanian national hero with a suspiciously Hungarian sounding name.

    We practically have the whole castle to ourselves.

    Well this was true compensation for the hot delays , sitting at the wheel in queues – once for a whole hour outside Sebes where we moved a hundred yards every ten minutes. Romania like Bulgaria is a country of staggering beauty even though you have sometimes to keep one eye closed.

    So let’s look at Razgrad – we’re passing by there anyway. There’s a historic mosque and substantial remains of a Roman town. The centre of Razgrad looks uncared for. The few older buildings are unrestored and flaking. The Mosque is closed. Its windows are broken. The Odessa style steps – probably built under the aegis of Liudmilla Zhivkova – lead to a monstrous Balkan Tourist hotel, and are now sprouting weeds. There are no signs for Abritus – the ancient site – and we have to ask for directions. It’s just by the factory – you can’t miss it.

    This sounded ominous and indeed beside one brown sign and a policeman chewing sunflower seeds we found the factory, site and the museum shaded by trees just off the main road to Shumen.

    The Roman gateway and part of the wall have been crudely restored with cement blocks to give a sufficient idea of the scale of the original town. But in 1956 a pharmaceutical factory was built and this occupies most of the centre of the site. You have to skirt round its entrance to reach the Roman forum, where columns stand in competition with the factory’s chimneys. Close one eye and you might be in Greece, Turkey or Rome.

    The museum contains far more than it is able to display in its one room. Funds are promised for fitting exhibition space and appropriate security. There are no funds for further archaeological excavations of a site which predates Roman occupation but has to suffer a factory eyesore that no longer provides work for the town.

  5. Anxiety dreams

    May 16, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    24 hours away from once again taking to the road and driving to Bulgaria – first stop Dusseldorf, then Stuttgart then all points east, as heat and cicadas and distances increase.

    In the soon to be deserted house, the dust is settling after they hacked away the plaster from walls still damp from the long undetected silent leak. That was yesterday. The heavy dinosaur drying machines have been taken away. No longer will their indefatigable roar behind closed doors fray nerves and accelerate the electricity meter.

    Upstairs the spare bedroom has filled with bags and crates – all to be squeezed into our car once darkness falls – in the hope that our flit will be unobtrusive.

    And so the anxiety dreams begin.

    It is the interval and I leave Annie in the theatre bar. I have three minutes to stow my bicycle somewhere safe and get back in time for the second act. Picking up the bike from the pavement outside the theatre I wobble across two lanes of traffic and ride up the wrong side of a busy shopping street. The theatre is further and further away. Then I see an estate agents with other bikes parked outside. I spot that they are not locked. This must be a good place to leave my bike. Should I ask permission? Probably, but I have no time. The audience will be filing back to their seats by now and Annie will be wondering where the hell I am. I start back up the pavement. It leads to some stairs. I climb them and my route leads me through an open door. No-one in the flat appears to notice as I pass through living room and kitchen. It must be an established right of way. I go through the back door and climb some more stairs. Suddenly I am in an enormous classroom. There are at least a hundred kids sitting behind desks and I am taking form period. I hover over a tape machine that doesn’t work. I start walking round talking to individuals but when I look up, I find that all the kids are gone. It’s time for me to find my next class. But I have to pick up coat, scarf, books, tape recorder – I drop a towel and stoop to clutch at it with my two spare fingers. Then still struggling with all this stuff in my arms, I am in the busy school corridor looking for my class. I find them sitting crammed onto two tables in the crowded refectory. Surely I don’t have to teach them here. My head of Department is sitting with them with her deputy. Is this an observation? But fat Wendy turns to me. What are you doing here, sir? You haven’t got us now. You’ve got the other lot. Of course! I nod to my head of department, not daring to ask her where I’m supposed to be. Out in the corridor again, I look into classrooms. Lessons have started. Where is my class? The corridor turns into a shopping mall then street. Shops turn to houses and I realise I need to turn back. I’m now in a car with Annie, still looking for this class. What sort of impression am I giving the school? A teacher who doesn’t know who he’s supposed to be teaching; a teacher who cannot locate his class – that teacher must be woefully underprepared.

    I wake and struggle downstairs. I switch on the radio. Something about tourists being turned back from Lundy Island by rough seas. I switch on the TV – yet another Labour MP caught out over his expenses. I switch on the computer. It’s set itself to the wrong date and time again and I get a red message from Norton that my subscription has ended and I am defenceless against virus attacks. Ay Caramba!

    I try to ring Dad in Verona, but he has gone out with his key. Vlad – who rhymes with Dad – is in Kurdish Iraq – racing back to the Turkish border before his visa expires – so he can pick up another visa for Iran.

    I must lighten up.