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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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