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Fire Weather: Notes from the Field


A research diary for my novel-in-progress, 

in which two food-loving 

women from two different cultures 

form a turbulent friendship in modern-day Bulgaria


The Bookseller

Photo by Rumen Milkow

"Los búlgaros son unos esclavos..." the Bulgarian bookseller says, with disgust in his voice and lament in his posture, speaking to me in the practically perfect Spanish he learned over two seasons harvesting olives in Andalucía.


Translation: The Bulgarian people are slaves. 


"What do you mean they're slaves?" I ask him.


"People here don't protest unless they're paid," he says. "The only time Bulgarians have taken to the streets of their own free will was when we made the semifinals of the '94 World Cup."


Many Bulgarians say this slave mentality dates back to the time of the Turkish yoke [the term many Bulgarians use to refer to the 500 years when the country was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire]. But the bookseller doesn't agree.


"We didn't get along as badly with the Turks as people think," he says. "It was socialism, much more than the Ottomans, that contributed to the slave mentality. Socialism was a terrible influence on people's thinking."


So why does he showcase photos of Stalin and Che Guevara in his store window? And why does he stock such an impressive collection of socialist literature [from standards like The Communist Manifesto to a Russian-language autobiography of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha]?


"I'm running a business," he tells me, "and socialist literature is what young people want. Capitalism is broken. They're searching for an alternative. They're reading it all: Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Mao, Tito. I stock it because it sells." He is well aware of the irony in this scenario. 


The bookseller circles back to the Bulgarian psyche, which is very different from that of other countries in the vicinity. "We're not like the Greeks, who hit the streets at the drop of a hat," he says. "We don't defend ourselves, our rights. We're not proactive and enterprising. We're conservative, stubborn to the point where it's counterproductive." 


His explanation for this stubbornness: Bulgaria is the oldest country in Europe. "Y somos muy pegados a la tierra nata," he says. And we're very attached to our homeland, to our native soil. Attached to a self-destructive degree, he adds.


"A Bulgarian can be hungry, on the verge of starvation. But he'll refuse to sell the two houses in the village he owns—which are falling apart—because they're where he was born, or where his mother was born. 'I can't sell them while I'm alive,' he'll say. It makes no sense!"


Or does it?




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An Introduction




"Why do you want to write about us?" my newish Bulgarian friend asks me, smiling a bemused smile as she takes a sip of coffee.


Though it's a legitimate question, and though I'm prepared for it, I'm immediately uncomfortable, on my back foot, searching for the words to explain my motives – to her and to myself.


Why do I—a privileged, [arguably] well-educated woman from the west, a foreigner who can only just wish someone a happy birthday and order a salad in this country—want to write about Bulgaria?


"Yes," I say, "Well." I take a long breath, stalling, gathering. I've never been good at elevator pitches.


Because I'm married to a half-Bulgarian man?


Because this country used to be a place I endured—toilets and all—out of love for my husband?


Because the ways Bulgarians think, the ways they survive, the ways they relate, the ways they are political or apolitical, confuse/surprise/fascinate me?


Because now, after ten-plus years of traveling back and forth between Berlin and the Balkans, I can't imagine a life without Bulgaria?


"Okay," says my friend, "Sure." She pushes the cup and saucer to the side. "But what's the story?"


I tell her some version of the following: The story takes place in Bulgaria in 2013, when rising electricity prices triggered a wave of mass protests around the country, as well as a wave of self-immolations. While the setting of the book is factual, my two main characters—a Bulgarian goat cheesemaker and a former Peace Corps volunteer turned professional cook—are fictional.


My friend looks skeptical.


I know I'm an outsider, I say. I know I've got to be careful about misrepresenting a country I'm not from. I know I have to come clean about my frames of reference. I know I must improve my Bulgarian. I know I need to do research—lots of research.


Ergo this blog, where I'll chronicle my research experiences in Bulgaria and among the Bulgarian diaspora, parsing these experiences to inform my novel.


The intention: to immerse myself, to listen, to remain aware of my filters and my ignorance.


The hope: to deepen my understanding, to learn from experience, to find the wherewithal to tell a credible and compelling story.


In the words of the great Katherine Boo, I will try "to compensate for my limitations the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent and attention paid."


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