Welcome to the blog of Miroslav Georgiev - classical pianist and conductor. Here you can read and discuss interesting stuff from the world of music, life, politics and more.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eric in the country of opportunities - Bulgaria

I found recently an article in Bulgarian newspaper Dnevnik, which I thought was really worthwhile reading. So I translated it into English, for all  non-Bulgarians who care to know the viewpoint of an American about Bulgaria. So, I give you the entirety of the article below:

"How are we gonna catch up with the Americans... " - this is what the great Bulgarian comedian Todor Kolev used to ask every week on Ephir 2 (Bulgarian TV channel at the time). A question both comic and tragic. Nowadays the ideal seems to have changed a bit, we're not trying to catch up with the Americans anymore,  but we are still trying to catch up... or at least, to run.
"This question is completely wrong. Why do you need to be like the Americans?!", asks Eric Halsey (afterwards he confesses he wasn't familiar with this expression, but he often hears similar comments from his Bulgarian friends). He is 25, born and raised in the suburbs of Washington DC, he loves playing the guitar and harmonica ... and he loves Bulgaria and Bulgarian history so much that one and a half years ago he decided to stay, work and grow here. "There is no other place I'd rather be at the moment", he says smiling.

Tales of lands and times far off

 Eric grew up in a 'boring, tidy suburb', but in an interesting family, somewhere in the upper middle class. His mother organized meetings and events for an American union, while his father is a lobbyist with his own firm, working primarily for war veterans' rights. When I ask Eric whether his father's profession is well-described in the movie "Thank you for smoking", he smiles and says: "This movie's poster hangs on the wall at home. When the movie first came out, I asked my dad, and he said - "Yes, I know these people".  

Bulgaria attracted Eric's attention by chance, while he was in high school. At this time he already loved geography and history, but the reason to start studying our part of the globe was a girl. "Her mother had been appointed to NATO's Sofia bureau for three years. I met her right after they came back".
She told him about Sofia and the Bulgarians, and for Christmas she gave him the book "A crown of thorns" by Stefan Grouev. "This book shocked me. I was very much into history at the time, and I knew very well the World Wars period, I was fascinated by it. All of a sudden, I got this different point of view on it all, the Bulgarian point of view, and I was amazed - it looked like a completely different story", he recalls. Then he decided to visit this place some day, and fast-forward couple of years he was moving in his new apartment in the center of Sofia. "I still think it's incredible" - Eric laughs at a side comment. "This friend of mine that incensed me, she now lives in California and has three children. This is

one of these cosmic accidents in life -

 just because I met her in this precise moment, I ended up here. It's crazy how such a small thing can completely change your life's course", the young man says with a smile, and adds: "People always think this must have been a very difficult decision, a great dilemma. But actually deciding to stay was very easy for me. The difficult part was arranging the documents, because even though Bulgaria isn't in the Shengen space yet, your legal requirements are in sync with it, and the visa requirements are very high." He adds more seriously: "It was obvious for me that I had to stay. They said to me - 'You're crazy! You will have much more opportunities in the US to do what you want', but I disagree. I think I have bright future in Sofia, my life right now is here - my contacts, my friends are here, not in the US."

About Stamboliyski[1] and the false reasons for pride

Eric's interest in Bulgarian history got stronger in college, and he decided to hit two rabbits with one bullet - "I was certain I wanted to study history, the question was - what history. I also decided I wanted to study abroad for a time. I've never been to Europe, I had rarely left the US. So, I started thinking - I'm already interested in Bulgaria, and education there is more accessible compared to places like France or the UK..."
And so he transferred for an year in the American University in Blagoevgrad to study Bulgarian history. At the end of this year he realized: "Yes, this is a field I could contribute to", because "for history majors it's very important to find a niche and contribute to it. There is a lot to learn here, a lot of new things to be said... What new can you say about World War II, for example? Everything has been said already."

After Blagoevgrad Eric came back to graduate in the US, then he studied National Identities in the Central European University in Budapest, and finally he ended up in the American University in Bulgaria again, working on his thesis about Alexander Stamboliyski with a Fulbright scholarship. "He is a very interesting person. Don't get me wrong - he's not the ideal person, but he has some very interesting ideas for the time", he clarifies.
According to Eric, Stamboliyski and many other figures in our history are undervalued and overlooked. "Bulgaria doesn't appreciate the really important things in its history. I think that you pay attention to facts in your history that are not that praiseworthy, in detriment of other facts which are really admirable", he says.

One of the most frequent boasts he hears from his Bulgarian friends is that the Bulgarian army has never lost a battle. "I tell them - who cares about the past in an area (military) which will never be the future of Bulgaria? Building a national identity around military achievements doesn't lead anywhere", he says.

A much more important achievement and reason for pride could be our education - "the fact that Bulgaria, starting from nothing, managed to build a school system and increase literacy without any help or particular government strategy. In other European countries there was a general educational  revolution in the 19th century, an effort to standardize the system, while in Bulgaria the common people got together and did it themselves. This is something you should be really proud of, as a nation", says Eric Holsie.

Another good example, according to the young historian, is Stamboliysky himself. "At times in which Europe starts to modernize and the rural population (which is about 90%) is regarded almost like an enemy, Stamboliysky is the only one that asks the question: 'Can't we modernize WITH these people, not DESPITE them?' This is a great concept, from humanitarian point of view - that 90% of the population is not an enemy, not something that has to be reduced and changed in order to achieve a goal."

Eric considered a doctor's degree and an academic career, but after browsing the possibilities for advancement and the costs of these programs, he gave up. Instead he started his own project, allowing him to continue studying Bulgarian history, analyzing  it and spread his work over the Internet. Little more than an year ago he, along with Bulgarian friend Martin Hristov, bought professional  sound equipment and started

The Bulgarian History Podcast

All episodes in the podcast, personally recorded by Eric in English, are dedicated to Bulgarian history, starting with the theories of the ancestry of the Bulgarian people and the specifics of the Balkans. Thirteen episodes later he has gotten to the period of Simeon (Bulgarian medieval king).
"I decided that's what I'm gonna do now, because academic career is difficult. Fortunately, there are many ways in our technological world to make and spread your historical analysis, to gather feedback, to teach and even make some (very few) money from donations. Thanks to these donations, we managed to pay off the investments around month 10 of the project, so it's not bad at all."

Eric also represents an American firm here, he is a freelance writer for a marketing company, and he has several students, one of them a 4-year old, he teaches History and English to. He is also working on a book about Bulgarian identity in the beginning of the 20th century, although he rarely has time for it - "I may finish it in the next 10 years...". In his spare time he learns Bulgarian and/or enjoys a good beer with friends: "It's so much easier to go out with friends here; in the US you have to think constantly of transport logistics, and people are overworked and don't go out. The standards of living are very different. For example, in the area in the US  where I come from, in order to have some basic comfort you need to make very serious money, and it's mandatory to have a car. This is something I love about Sofia - you don't need a car, and I don't want a car. Of course, here everything is cheaper, and you make far less money, but if you make good money for the place where you live, what does it matter how things stand in the US", Eric comments.
"Of course, I'm not here to get rich. For me, this is an

exciting place full of changes.

I like that about Sofia - things are constantly changing, something new comes up, some new event gathers momentum. In the US change is incredibly slow. I hadn't gone back there for two years and a half, and the only difference was that the metro line got an extension. That's it. If you're out of Sofia for six months, you risk getting lost after coming back".
He misses the people, his family and ... good old barbeque. Sofia's broken sidewalks are more a source of jokes than of irritation ("You haven't really been in Sofia until you step on a loose tile and get yourself all wet", he laughs), and the ugly old buildings are charismatic and worthwhile for a historian. "When you know and understand history, these buildings are simply magical - you try to find out when they were built, why, how people tried to modernize them, to adapt them to new circumstances. Ugly things can also be interesting, or at least - amusing. I have a strange sense of humor", he says.

About Bulgarians and Americans, realistically

It's true that Americans don't know much of the world, confirms Eric. He gives an example:  "After I decided to stay, I spend a huge amount of time explaining to my parents where is Bulgaria, that this is not Ukraine, that this is a NATO and EU member state and that I'm safe".
According to him, trying to 'catch up to the Americans' is wrong for many reasons, because many things there are not ideal, or are outright problematic. The transport arrangement - oil and transport, around which the whole country is built, is absolutely unsuitable; and anyway you can't copy one country's ways onto another, without adaptation. "You could study the successful things in America - for example the justice system, but not much more", he advises.

"It is obvious that in Bulgaria the transition from communism to democracy is the least advanced - for example, the archives weren't made public until recently. But I think there is hope, and it lies in the new generation. Because even the 30-year olds nowadays have this idea that if you could do something the 'other way', using connections, you should absolutely do it like that, or you risk lagging behind. But future generations will change their attitude. It's a little sad that there isn't much you can do about it - you have to simply wait it out, but this is also the most effective method."
He says he's much more optimistic than the Bulgarians, primarily because of the examples he sees everywhere. He knows many young, active people with ideas, who are dedicated and want to improve Bulgaria. "I meet great young people, and the fact that part of them leave bothers me. But I also often meet people that say 'I'm not going anywhere, I'm gonna stay here and do something worthy'. I hope that many of those that left will come back, because it is very important to be at a place where you can really develop, be innovative, stand out, and such is this place right now. If you're young, ambitious and dedicated it's not difficult to achieve something, and I think many Bulgarians abroad will choose to come back and use here what they learned there".
When asked

What is the biggest difference between Bulgaria and the US?

 the young man starts thinking. "I'm sure there is an answer, but I can't think of one right now", he says seriously. And then he answers: "Maybe the difference is that many Bulgarians are pessimistic, when there's a reason to be optimistic; while many Americans are optimistic, when there is no reason for it. This is very funny for me, both as a participant and a spectator; in the US I'm always the negativist: "People, things are not going well, look around!" And here I'm the positivist: "People, it's not that bad as you make it to be, and things are improving". In fact, I try really hard to be a realist." 

Original author: Angelina Genova. You can find the original article here. And here is the link to the Bulgarian History Podcast.   

[1] Alexander Stamboliyski (1879 - 1923) was an influential Bulgarian politician, member of the Agrarian Union. He was famous for his supra-national and reformist ideas. His party won the elections in 1920 and he became Prime minister.  

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