Interview: Part diary and part travelogue, Randall Baker's new book reads the Bulgarian mind

Interview for Vagabond magazine

Imagine you are in a restaurant with a Bulgarian friend. The meal is over and you ask how their steak was. Now, anywhere else in the world you would get the answer that the steak was good, or bad, or cold or whatever. In Bulgaria the answer is likely to be: It was better than I expected.

Sounds familiar? This and many other local experiences inspired Randall Baker's new book Bulgariana, a humorous take on life in this country today.

Distinguished professor Randall Baker, a youthful 65-year-old Welshman, first visited Bulgaria in 1990 and has been back every year since then. He spent many years teaching at Indiana University, travelled and taught across the globe and helped found the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. In 1992 he spent a year here on a Fulbright scholarship and his story, and the stories of many others are in his book Do Sofia I Nazad which was published in Bulgarian. In 2001 he spent another seven months teaching in Bulgaria and advising the government on EU accession.

His new book comes out less than a year after he relocated to this country last December. Bulgariana has it all: buses that are on the Protected Species list; letters not being delivered in Socialist-era communal blocks; bikers trying to break the world land- speed record up and down Sofia's Bulgaria Boulevard.

It also describes some of the endearing aspects of living here, like dropping in unannounced, not having to own a car or being able to find a village that is completely removed from this world. In an anecdotal style, Baker offers funny and fascinating insights into the nation's favourite pastime of offering a list of reasons why something won't or can't happen, or the Bulgarian genius for being pessimistic when things are going well.

 

Vagabond: When and why did you first visit Bulgaria?

 

R.B.: I came in 1990. At a conference in Bath a red-haired lady called Emiliya Kandeva (now a constitutional lawyer and a judge in the international court on Rwanda) wanted to get a copy of my paper. She was there with a group of people who talked about establishing a free university. I had no idea where this woman was from. When she said Bulgaria, my mind went black, but she was so active and dynamic that, by the time the dinner was over, she had talked me into going to Sofia. I was going to take a couple of friends, a law professor, a professor of Slavic studies, and a professor of business. We came here in December and spent two weeks. The NBU didn't exist then but it had an office in writer Angel Karaliychev's apartment, which had been turned into a museum of youth literature. I thought what a great place to invent a university—in the bedroom of a man who wrote fairy stories. That's the story of NBU. I've always liked it because it's a completely Bulgarian institution, there is no foreign money, no millions of dollars poured in by a foreign country, and because of that it's done very well.

 

 

Vagabond: How is Bulgaria of 2009 different to the Bulgaria of the early 1990s?

 

R.B.: In some ways it's completely different but in other ways it's very similar. There are only two shops left from that time—one is the Levi's store on Vitosha and Solunska and the other one is a Lego store near the main post office. The difference is the obvious signs of commerce: the adverts, the stores, the amount of traffic and the fact that people are completely different, much more stylish, they have a sense of being fashionable. And there's two million fewer people here. The thing that hasn't changed is that people still have a large circle of friends, and they'd spend all day telling you how Bulgaria is going to hell and then all go meet in the evening and have another—rakiya. What Bulgaria has is something I don't think it appreciates, and that is a very strong social life. This is how I remember growing up in the UK in the 1940s, 1950s, and the early 1960s. Now you have to make an appointment a week ahead. America was just like this place when I went there in 1963. Recently, the Washington Post said the typical American has two friends, and they're married to one of them. If you said that to a Bulgarian they couldn't imagine how one could have just two friends. That's something that Bulgaria is likely to lose.

 

 

Vagabond: In 2000, you took a guess that Bulgaria was going to join the EU on 1 January 2007. What are your other projections?

 

R.B.: Bulgaria will become more and more integrated into Europe and more of its decisions will be made in Europe, not here, but that maybe will help end the isolation, because this is a problem. One future for Bulgaria is as a bridge between Europe and Turkey, and between Europe and Central Asia. That's historically the role of Bulgaria.

 

 

Vagabond: What is Bulgaria's biggest problem?

 

R.B.: Building a responsible middle class. The middle class is quite poor, doctors and professors don't earn anything. If you look at who are the success stories in Bulgaria, they're not people who got an education but those who left school early and set up shady businesses and have access to all sorts of grey money nobody knows about. There isn't that obvious reward system for kids growing up here.

 

 

Vagabond: How would you describe Bulgaria to a first- time visitor?

 

R.B.: It's not a typically European country, because it is an European country that missed almost all of the European experiences like the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, because the Ottoman Empire never had them. It has developed in isolation. It didn't enter the modern era until very late and then it made a lot of unfortunate friends in the First and Second World War, and then became part of the completely sealed Soviet Union. You could say Bulgaria's modern history began in 1990 and this is its first experience of being involved with the wider world.

At the same time it is unquestionably a European country, it's part of Europe, the mentality is European, it just has been buried for so long under the surface. This maybe created that type of personality, Bulgarians had to be slightly under the surface, it's not easy to be a strong outgoing national culture if you are ruled by somebody else. The new generation coming through is much more cosmopolitan, very much at home in London or Paris. If you go to a family you speak Russian to the parents and English to the kids, that's how fast it has changed.

 

Vagabond: Three typically Bulgarian traits?

 

R.B.: One characteristic of Bulgaria is that there must be more artists and poets and philosophers per square kilometre here than any place on earth. Almost everybody I know is a writer, and artists I know by the dozen.

There is this expectation here that everything is likely to go wrong. I think it's part of that Turkish and then Communist experience that you can't expect too much because someone else is running your life, and whether they're doing a good job or a bad job, it doesn't matter as you're not in control.

No Bulgarian is what he seems. I found a carpenter and he discussed Plato with me. He is a carpenter but he has a PhD in philosophy.

I've invented this country called Kassandria, which is not exactly Bulgaria but it's an imagined Balkan country somewhere very close to Bulgaria. The motto of the country is: It can't possibly get any worse but it almost certainly will. I think it's a good philosophy because then you're always surprised when things go well. If things do go wrong, you come out with the other Kassandrian saying: I told you it wouldn't work. Every time I have an idea people in the room will immediately give you a list of reasons why it's nevazmozhno, forget it. But then it happens. This is Bulgaria. They think it's impossible but two years later it's there.

 

 

Vagabond: Bulgaria's top advantages?

 

R.B.: Social relations. It's a very strong society with very strong social relations. Here you see hundreds of small kids all running to get the tram, you'll never see that in the US as kids are never allowed to go out in the street alone. That's a sign of confidence, the other is a sign of paranoia. People let the kids go out because they feel confident that the kids will come home, they won't fall under the tram or get the wrong tram, kids are smarter than that. People haven't adopted so many of these paranoid ideas, people are not isolated, they don't have just two friends, they don't spend all their lives just buying things.

Stability. It's a model of tolerance, and that's important when you start realising that this is not the picture of this part of the world.

 

Vagabond: Where in Bulgaria would you take your visiting friends?

 

R.B.: I take them to meet my friends, which could take a few months, but they get to know the real Bulgaria.

I would take them to Breze, a village near Svoge, because that's the real Stara Planina, it's not full of foreigners who bought property, it's completely removed from the world and you get a sense of the old Bulgaria.What makes it interesting is that it was the only place in Bulgaria where they refused to accept the Russian liberation. There was a stand-off between the Breze people and the Russian military commander and Breze declared itself an independent kingdom under Tsar Damyan, a very interesting, mysterious person. For a very short period of time he ruled this independent state until a truce was negotiated by the local priest and they were allowed to reintegrate into Bulgaria. Only in Bulgaria would some village think that they can take on the Russian empire and win. There is a bar there called Tsar Damyan, with a bold statement inside about the resistance attempt.

The Rhodope. It's unfortunately more touristy there now, but it would be the place that is the most different for a visitor. I will take them on the railway from Septemvri to Velingrad. It's a magical ride on this tiny little railway.

And I'd take them to Plovdiv, as I think it should have been the capital of Bulgaria. It couldn't be, because at that time it was not in the Principality of Bulgaria, but it is for me the natural capital – it's central, it has more of a Bulgarian feel, and it has this wonderful old city.

 

Vagabond: The places to stay away from?

 

R.B.: Maybe the Black Sea. Back in 1990 you had a lot of natural beauty at the Black Sea but then it went mad somewhere in the late 1990s and everything got built over. Sozopol or Nesebar used to be these isolated little towns. Now they have been made into places that you go and see. A lot of the character of the Black Sea coast has been ruined, it has been lost.

 

Vagabond: You relocated in December 2008, why?

 

R.B.: The reason is that this is where all of my friends are. I was a typical American with two friends, so when I retired there was no reason for me to live there.

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