Yovkov, you should be living at this hour.

19/11/2009 by Christopher Buxton

Turkish serials outsoaped by Bulgarian Reality

A phone call from Bulgaria has alerted me to the fact that a single story has distracted the populace from its panic about Swine Flu. It has even supplanted Turkish Soap Operas in peoples’ imaginations. It is a story of village passion worthy of the pen of Yovkov.

A modern Romeo and Juliet – the headlines scream below the mastheads of even the most pretentious newspapers. Successive days have provided pictures of only one of the main protagonists – a blonde sixteen year old whose beauty rivals that of her fictional namesake, Albena.

In Yovkov’s story the fate of the doomed beauty provokes swiftly changing extremes of emotion from her neighbours.

The real Albena, only child of the Mayor of Knyazhevo, has provoked an even wider range of reaction, having clasped her fifteen year old boyfriend in her arms as together they threw themselves into the path of a slow moving but unstoppable freight train.

What initially captured the imagination of millions of readers was the fact that while Albena was a promising pupil at the Economics Gymnasium in Vratsa, her boyfriend was a gypsy. In America he would be described as coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Actually just a field separates Knyazhevo from Dyankovo and its gypsy quarter, and it appears that over the summer, Albena crossed that field and fell in love with Tsvetan.

Interestingly though there have been many pictures of Albena, I have yet to see a photograph of the “handsome” Tsvetan in any newspaper. This may reflect a disquiet among Bulgarian editors. By all means milk this Romeo and Juliet story for all it’s worth but let’s not have a picture of a gypsy on our front page.

References to doomed love abound. It turns out that Albena’s father had crossed the field to retrieve his daughter from her boyfriend’s hovel, whither his daughter had fled. It is alleged that supported by a cousin, he had entered Tsvetan’s home, threatened to kill Tsvetan, grabbed Albena and dragged her home.

The contrast between the two families could not have been starker. Tsvetan is the youngest of five in a family where no-one has regular paid employment. Life is grim. His mother travels to Sofia to beg. Tsvetan has been in trouble for breaking into empty houses and stealing property. “Dirt poor – what else could you expect?” The Dyankovo Mayor is quoted as saying, while at the same time expressing her sympathy for her colleague, Albena’s father.

“What would you do if your daughter wanted to marry a…..?” is a recurring fantasy topic of conversation throughout the world. It can allow for unrestrained racism and assumptions of patriarchal power. As we know in the UK, such speculation can light the touch-paper for so called “honour killing”, when a father wakes to the reported reality of his daughter’s unsuitable relationship.

This summer in Bulgaria I suddenly found myself out of my Guardian reader’s comfort zone. I was sitting at a table loaded with goodies, drinking rakia with friends, listening to the good natured banter. Into this came a story – Stoycho’s daughter was going to Africa on a business trip. Stoycho told her – hey, don’t you come back with a black boyfriend ‘cos you know what I’ll do. I’ll take him on a hunting trip. Cue knowing laughter from everyone.

Like the villagers in Yovkov’s story Albena, local feeling, reported in newspapers, sways violently between sorrow for the doomed lovers and sympathy for the position of Albena’s father. Tsvetan still struggling for his life in the local hospital perfectly fits the racist stereotype of thieving gypsy. His family is currently desperately trying to raise the money necessary for operations on his crushed hands and brain trauma. However villagers have told reporters it would be better if he died and joined Albena in Heaven, where perhaps God would look more kindly on a love between a blonde beauty and a gypsy.

So for a while, people can wallow in the sentimental glow occasioned by the fate of “star crossed lovers”. The story is not likely to change entrenched attitudes however. As good people travel to work they’ll read the latest crime stories, pass the Graffiti calling for Gypsies to be boiled down to soap and tut-tut over the problem of its impoverished minority.