Truth through text

Monday, April 8, 2019 - 11:36pm

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Illustration by Lauren Kuzee

Recently, during my 2 a.m. post-library attempt to fall asleep, I was scrolling through Twitter and fell upon a video by The Atlantic titled “Bulgaria: The World’s Fastest-Shrinking Country.” I clicked, intrigued. As the child of two Bulgarian immigrants, I am bilingual and culturally tuned to my ethnic background. But because I was born and raised in the United States, I am always curious to learn and understand more about Bulgaria. 

While I gossip in Bulgarian with my grandmother over обяд (lunch), cook леща (lentils) in my messy college house kitchen and scour Spotify for any new album releases by Bulgarian showman and musician Slavi Trifonov, I also feel misplaced whenever I return to visit family in Sofia. I sense this divide, daily: In my core, I am an American girl, but I am also different because of the different rituals I have practiced for my whole life.

That’s why, after 20 minutes of watching The Atlantic’s reportage on Altimir, a rural Bulgarian village, I was both irritated and confused. The title of the piece implied that it would explore the rising rates of emigration from Bulgaria as a whole, and the description noted that “that the story of globalization is often told from the perspective of those who leave” and boasted it would show what life was like for those who remained. Yet the entire 17-minute piece focused on one village, one man and one generalized story.

The coverage was no more than a simplified, one-dimensional pity piece made for cinematographic effect rather than accurate, important journalism. It lacked narration as it made sweeping dramatic shots over dilapidated buildings and factories. It faulted any historical context as it paused on old Soviet billboards. It showed clips of the elders reminiscing on Communism without describing exactly how such political ideology functioned.

It made no effort to explain the profound issues in the country while following an old man, Yordan, as he biked about the town, with camera shots that seemed to focus more on aesthetic angles than substantive interviews and dialogue. And judging by the title of their documentary, the piece unfairly synthesized every different Bulgarian region, dialect, culture and community into one rural town, into one story. How could this be representative of an entire country?

This form of reporting is nothing new, though. From films to newspapers to literature, Western publications love to romanticize countries they deem as lesser and pitiful. For example, in what is supposed to be an informative video, a travel channel’s YouTube pegs Bulgaria as a good destination for “tripsters” to go to when in search of the “bleakest, most obscure regions of the planet.”

It seems to me that the Western media maintains a certain allure for the formerly oppressed, for places where people had to adapt in the most curious of ways to survive. In the famous book Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” the narrator muses on how Western Europeans find the “spirit dissidents show during repression and revolution” attractive. The Swiss character Franz regards the regime and rebellion in Czechoslovakia with admiration and jealousy, deeming the drama a representation of “real life” — one that he yearns to experience. This ultimately makes his Slovakian lover, Sabina, hate him — she cannot believe he views oppression as anything other than ugly and traumatic.

The reality of oppression and revolution is not as pretty as Franz or The Atlantic tries to make it out to be. My parents often reminisce on their lives in the Eastern Bloc with creased eyes and furrowed brows, musing on the limits of opportunity under the suffocating regime with both disdain and nostalgia. Their feelings toward their home country are conflicted, but are theirs to make.

My mother sees no romance in my grandmother's cancer, an illness my mother believes was partially brought on by the constant state of anxiety and oppression the regime produced. My father does not tell of beauty when he reflects on empty grocery stores and how he smuggled CDs through the airport to give to friends.

But they do see hope in the birth of a new generation. They do encourage my desire to live in Sofia and cheer on the activists we read about on local news sites. That’s why they bring me back almost every year: to see joy in the rising sun of a new Bulgaria, the only one I know and the one The Atlantic can’t seem to see.

The Bulgaria my parents left was one of economic and political instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through the United States diversity visa program, they had an opportunity for a more promising future and took it. The Bulgaria I got to know came much later, when the country was achieving fiscal stability and corruption was relatively low. I remember spending the equivalent of a dime for popcorn in Sofia’s South Park and hiking the Vitosha mountain for free. I smile at the memory of picking figs off of trees with my grandmother and exploring rivers by my grandfather’s villa. I laugh at the time I went to Bulgaria as a teenager, excited by the $1 a shot deals at each bar lining the coast of the Black Sea. These are images I fail to see represented in the media, perhaps because they are too reminiscent of the more elite and expensive life on the Western side of the continent.

While my memories of summers in Bulgaria are little sunbeams on the landscape of my Eastern European heritage, they are also admittedly immature and slightly uninformed. The previously stabilizing economy is shaky once again, and issues of corruption are increasingly present. But there is a difference between recognizing a country’s troublesome history and present lack of leadership and labeling it as a failed state. In our globalizing world, there is a gap between countries with years of independence and stability, and those who are playing catch-up to reach what is accepted as a first-world standard of living.

My issue with reporting on former Communist countries is they narrow the diversity and trauma of the Balkan region into one politically convenient image: a cautionary tale of what happens in countries without capitalism. They present a stereotype of a backward place where the average citizen is a villager who does no more than bike about their deserted town and drink ракия (rakia, or fruit brandy) in a cottage with other elders.

As someone born and raised in the United States, I acknowledge that my understanding of Bulgaria and the Balkan region is limited and biased. However, through this cultural duality of my upbringing and frequent visits to Bulgaria, I have a more refined and holistic view on what life there actually looks like. This is why I stress the importance of consuming films, books or even music about Eastern Europe by Eastern Europeans. Not only are they artful and entertaining, but they present reality in an honest and effective way.

Storytelling is an interesting craft, one of great importance in our globalizing world. As someone who wants to learn more about where I am from, I am frequently disappointed by the biased representations of Bulgaria and Eastern Europe that I find when searching the web. I believe storytellers have a responsibility to balance their portrayal of political upheaval and economic instability with the rawest, sweetest and most tragic of memories.

For me, these deep memories and connections manifest in the simplest of ways. I have learned to understand my Bulgarian identity through learning how to make пълнени чушки (stuffed bell pepper) with my mom, celebrating the holiday Baba Marta in the springtime and playing soccer with all of my male relatives.

So I urge anyone, “tripster” or true curious traveler, to search beyond the Western media to create their own image of these less known but still culturally rich places. As rates of emigration rise, and subsequent opinions are formulated on why this is, I suggest informing yourself comprehensively. There are infinite corners to a country — nooks where numbers cannot exist. There are stories that cannot be told through percentages and data. Sometimes, the sun and tradition are the strongest truth.