May 2011


Letter to a Bulgarian friend

By Alex Miller
Celebrations in Sofia: the Day of Bulgarian Culture and Slavic Letters, 24 May 1968. © Keystone-France/Getty Images

Dear Boris,

You tell me you are living in Chirpan again, the town where you were born. That you have returned there after 35 years away. I still see Chirpan, low to the horizon and far to the west across the plain as we drove on our roundabout route through Dimitrovgrad to Stara Zagora – finding our way back to Sofia by a route no Bulgarian would ever have taken. You have asked me to write to you about my impressions of Bulgaria. It is not easy for me to do. I touched your country lightly for three weeks then left, having acquired nothing of your language except the civilities of good morning, good evening and thank you.

Clearly you are free, the people of Bulgaria I mean. Men and women walk safely in the streets of Sofia at all hours of day and night. You feel no sense of threat, perhaps only a sense of something a little forlorn, perhaps a feeling that “there is little that can be done” to change things. It was a refrain I heard often from your fellow countrymen; a shrug of the shoulders and a smile and this confession that the people feel they are powerless to change the conditions of their lives. I was impressed to see that Bulgarians are kind to stray dogs and cats, and do not kick them out of the way. And that the stray dogs and cats get on with each other, also. They lie about in small patches of sunlight or walk the streets calmly, at ease, under no threat, among the people, almost with the people. Not pets but each animal with his or her own peculiar destiny. Permitted a quiet respect. This said much to me about you.

Trees are valued more than footpaths. This I also liked. Here in my town of Castlemaine trees struggle to find a champion. But you have made it illegal to fell trees. I was moved to see those half-fallen, twisted trunks of oaks held in place with steel crutches, as if they were revered relatives, old men and women whose persistence among you was vital to your morale. When you and I stood in our first square together and I remarked on the beauty of the trees, you told me the Soviets had planted them. I said, “So you’re telling me they did some good?” You smiled and gave that shrug of your shoulders. “Unfortunately, it’s not possible to say they were all bad,” you said. “They were people, after all.”

Your people were at great pains to be scrupulously honest in their dealings with me, service people I mean, such as taxi drivers, hotel porters, waiters and shopkeepers, often preferring to undercharge me. It was as if they knew I had been warned to expect trickery from them, and they wished to reassure me that Bulgarians are not crooks. Only one taxi driver cheated me. But he wasn’t really cheating so much as making the best of the situation, and he was very charming with it, so I didn’t mind and I let it pass. 

When the air-raid siren wailed across the city, I was walking in a poor district where you had warned me not to venture. “You won’t be safe there,” you told me. So of course I went there to see for myself what these terrifying dangers might be. It was the same siren I knew as a boy in London and it sent a small thrill of fear through me. Everyone on this poor street, including the young who held hands, stood still at the sound of the siren, some even a little to attention, and cars pulled up and waited. I stood still too, moved by what I knew to be this communal memorial to the dead of wars, and was glad to be a part of it, becoming a part of it as I stood there, a Bulgarian for the moment of the wailing siren. Then the dying howl and the small interval of silence before the life of the street resumed.

The antique trams from the postwar period and broken unattended footpaths would make getting around impossible for someone in a wheelchair. I saw no wheelchairs. And everyone smoked. As I walked the streets of Sofia I felt that I was uncannily in the past, in a way I could not quite determine, that I had returned to the atmosphere of postwar London during my childhood. The shuttered attitude of people, unsmiling for the most part. And my wonderful discovery while walking the streets that you love books. The thronged street markets, which from a distance I took to be selling fruit and vegetables and which I saw, as I drew close, were selling only books.

I wanted very much to see the collection in the archaeological museum in Veliko Tarnovo. The building was a fine nineteenth-century stone edifice with a formal antique sculpture garden backing onto the cliff overlooking the Yantra, which was flowing strongly far below me thanks to the recent heavy rains. There was no one about. First, I tried to open the door but found it to be locked. The notice – unusually, in English as well as Cyrillic – said the museum was open at that time. It was 11 on a fine Wednesday morning. There was a bell and a second notice. This notice was in Cyrillic only but I took it to say, “Please Ring for Attention”, or some such thing. So I rang the bell. No one came. I waited for a long time, then I became bolder and hammered on the door with the side of my fist, and I leaned close and looked through the glass. A great silent hall filled with deep shadows and something large and made of stone. But not a living soul. I was turning away, prepared to admit defeat, when a woman came to the door and opened it. She signalled for me to follow her. I waited in the deeply shadowed entrance hall with the oversized amphora while she went away. After a little while another woman came. This woman carried a bunch of keys of the kind you might see in an old movie about a haunted house. She, too, had no English and did not smile or meet my eyes. She also signalled for me to follow her, unlocking the first gallery to the left of the front door. She waited until I had completed my circuit of that space then she locked the door behind me and opened the next gallery, and once again she waited for me to be done with my inspection of the exhibits. And so on, through two floors and many galleries with thousands of exhibits displayed in glass cases of the kind I knew in the Science Museum in Kensington when I was a boy. I hurried because I was worried that I was causing her to be late for her next appointment. When I left the museum she locked the front door behind me. When I looked back from the garden of antique sculptures it was as if I had not been there, as if no one else had ever been there or would ever be there. Inside, in the dark halls filled with ancient implements and weapons, the two silent unsmiling women. There was no charge.

I found it easier the following day to get into the National Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia. I was intrigued to find that many of the paintings were not what they claimed to be. The attendants who were looking after the gallery were left-over people from the Soviet era. Again, apart from the attendants, I seemed to be alone in the building. They made it clear by their manner that they resented all forms of happiness and frowned upon humour and the joy of life. If I was really there they had not noticed. And, unfortunately, they were all rather ugly. As if they were afflicted and had been especially selected. Only the nineteenth-century peasant paintings seemed to me authentic or interesting. Outside in the sun, drinking a coffee, the gilded cupolas of Alexander Nevsky gleaming across the square, it was another world. Delightful.

In Sofia many of the people (I especially noticed the young women) are very beautiful and well dressed. Sofia interested me more than Veliko Tarnovo and Sozopol. Though I could see why Bulgarians with money might wish to have a seaside house at Sozopol and the ancient association and dramatic setting of Veliko Tarnovo make it a place of great mystery. I met a deeply generous taxi driver by the name of Alexandrov. When I did not have enough leva to pay my bus fare – I was booking a bus to Istanbul for the following week – he took out his wallet and offered to make up the difference. His English was very good and I spent some days with him. While we drove about the countryside he told me that the rulers of Bulgaria are corrupt and criminal. I wondered if I should believe him or whether he was exaggerating. He painted a grim picture of how the rulers of today came by their power. He was a qualified engineer but had had to resort to taxi driving to make a living. So I felt that his opinion might have been influenced by bitterness. He kept bees and took me to meet them – “I have ten thousand working for me.” His bees were housed in the wild overgrown gardens of a convent on the side of a bleak and very beautiful mountain. It was a lovely peaceful place and it was clear to me that he loved it deeply and would have spent all his time there among his bees and his tomato plants if he did not have to earn his living driving a taxi. He turned off the fare meter while he made the detour to his bees. “This journey is for friendship.” When we stopped at a wayside coffee place along the highway, I bought him coffee and lunch and I served him. He remarked drily, “So, the new waiter has arrived.” I liked him very much. We became friends of the moment, friends of the road.

I liked your story of how you came through the rain and the traffic to get to my lecture! I am glad we met afterwards. You have stayed in my mind. Like your country. Or did I make it all up? Although I admit to writing fiction I think I only ever make things up that already exist. Where a generous sense of life is offered, as with Alexandrov the taxi driver, is it possible not to see a story?

Alex Miller
Alex Miller is a highly acclaimed Australian writer. He is the author of Lovesong, Journey to the Stone Country, Landscape of Farewell and Autumn Laing. He won the 2012 Melbourne Prize for Literature for his “outstanding contribution” to Australian culture.

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