From wet hair to Turks, Great Powers and fear of draughts
Every person has their own fears and usually these have to do with past experiences, current difficulties and so on. But some types of fears are experienced collectively. These are archetypal fears that, with a bow and a wink to Freud and Jung, may be termed national nightmares. What are Bulgarians most scared of? Are they scared of things that other nations, for example the Belgians, are not? Are the Bulgarians so different from the Greeks and the Turks in the way they fear others and each other? This brief, yet helpful guide will assist you – as long as you do not take it too seriously – in deciphering the psyche of your Bulgarian hosts and perhaps, with the right amount of persistence, help them understand that there is nothing so traumatic about having two windows at the opposite sides of a room open at the same time.
NIGHTMARE NO. 1
TO AVOID BEING CHEATED
No one likes getting conned, but many Bulgarians have a sometimes irrational fear of getting swindled out of their possessions, confidence and cash. They have good reason to be. In the post-Communist chaos that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall nearly 25 years ago all kinds of con artists appeared. Some were pretty innocent. They offered "fast and easy" ways to get rich by purchasing metal springs and bearings and then selling them at a good profit in northern Bulgaria (where, the operators claimed, there was a habitual shortage of metal springs and bearings). Some were a lot more grand-scale than that. In fact, many of the richest people in the country in 2013 have a footing in that 1990s past, when everyone tried to swindle everyone else and they all tried to swindle the state out of information (to be resold later), privileges and funds. Now Bulgaria is a member of the EU, so substitute EU funds for those funny associations of "workers and managers" that existed a decade ago, and through which Bulgaria's "mass privatisation" was effected.
Bottomline: Bulgarians probably know better than you that nothing in this world comes without strings attached. Act accordingly. You will really need to be very convincing.
NIGHTMARE NO. 2
TO AVOID CHEATING ONE'S SELF
This is even worse than getting cheated, because in such a scenario you will have no one to blame but yourself. There are numerous examples in everyday life. You buy tomatoes here and then you discover that better tomatoes are to be bought elsewhere – and at a lower price. You make a business decision to start growing rapeseed and then you find out no one actually needs rapeseed. Or you do buy some metal springs and bearings at wholesale prices and then you travel all the way to northern Bulgaria in an attempt to sell them at a profit.
The fear of cheating one's self is constantly fed by some cab companies in Sofia. Watch out for those OK logos.
NIGHTMARE NO. 3
This is a very deep-rooted fear that probably dates back to the times when Proto-Bulgars lived in caves that had two entrances: one for guests at the front and the other at the back to flee through in case uninvited visitors showed up and there was a shortage of coffee. One can only speculate as there is no written evidence, but those caves must have been very airy, especially in wintertime. Mothers were constantly looking for rock cavities in which to shelter their children fromthe elements, while fathers encountered perpetual difficulties in starting a fire as nasty winds always blew it out.
Fast forward 30 centuries and you will see that the situation remains unchanged in Bulgarian homes, restaurants, schools, hospitals and government offices. Two windows, especially if they are located at the opposite sides of a room, must never be opened at the same time because that will create a draught in the air and, as every Bulgarian grandmother knows, draughts can be fatal.
There is a whole branch of Bulgarian science dedicated to draughts. Draughtologists will jump up and close a window if there is even the slightest stir in the air. People with back ache will attribute it to their having been exposed to a draught. The elderly tend to be much more capable of detecting draughts than the young, and will consequently order the Bulgarian youth to move chairs if there is even a hint of a draught.
A draught to a Bulgarian is what heaviness in the legs is to a Frenchman. It is the source of major maladies, and must be treated uncompromisingly at its source. Shut that window!
NIGHTMARE NO. 4
TO AVOID GETTING LOST (ESPECIALLY WHILE ABROAD)
Some literati have suggested that the fear of getting lost can be traced back to excessive reading of Dante Alighieri, whose main character is middle-aged and finds himself in the middle of a dark forest. In more mundane terms, one gets lost all the time in Bulgaria. This is especially true on Bulgaria's roads (no – signage is not a traditional Bulgarian virtue), but it goes far beyond the realm of topography. You can get lost in the civil service, in politics, in a hospital. You keep getting lost in the media. These days you can get lost in The Mall of Sofia.
It is especially risky to get lost abroad. If that happens, you will have to take a taxi back to the hotel. Taxis are expensive and you never know whether the cabbie will take you by the shortest route. You run the serious risk of getting cheated or, worse, of cheating yourself. See Nightmare No. 2.
NIGHTMARE NO. 5
OK, you've been to one of those pre-fabricated housing estates on the outskirts of Bulgarian cities that date back to the 1960s and 1970s. They look pretty dismal, don't they? There is little if any infrastructure, stray dogs roam the paths, there is little if any lightning at night. Have you been into one of their entrances, for example Entrance V of Block 323? You really don't want to go there. It is likely to be the epitome of urban decay, an early 21st Century distopia.
Yet, it can be worth the effort of visiting your Bulgarian mate who lives on the 6th Floor of Entrance V. In all likelihood, their flat will actually be very nice and comfy. It will be clean, with a good bathroom. There will be an LCD television set and a balcony where you can have a smoke. The bedroom will be tidy and the kitchen table will be laid for dinner.
Soon you will be wondering how it is possible to have such a nice place for one's self in such a desolate neighbourhood, where hundreds if not thousands of other people have to pass through every day, without any respect for the good of the community or for the rights of others.
The short answer is that post-Communist Bulgarians have become quite immune to the, well, commune. Communism taught Bulgarians that private property was unimportant and all that mattered and was worth living for was the good of the community (or of its Party leaders). Reverse this 180 degrees and you will see the reason for current non-communal attitudes.
Remember: Entrance V looks the way it does not because the people living there like it that way, but because they cannot agree what to do with it and, especially, how to split the renovation costs. Refer to Nightmare No. 2.
Same thing happens in the Bulgarian parliament.
NIGHTMARE NO. 6
THE GREAT POWERS
These are absolutely not to be trusted. 19th Century British prime ministers liked the Turks, not the Bulgarians, because they were opposed to the Russians. The French always supported the Serbs. The Americans bombed us during the Second World War. None of these ever wanted a strong Bulgaria in the Balkans.
Now the Americans want to ruin Dobrudzha by drilling for shale gas, and the EU has already destroyed our nuclear power engineering by forcing us to shut down two reactors at Kozloduy. OK, they were of the type that blew up in Chernobyl, but we had made so many improvements to them...
Suspicion of the Great Powers largely accounts for the strong pro-Russian sentiment still prevalent in much of Bulgaria of today.
NIGHTMARE NO. 7
If the Turks (about 10 percent of Bulgaria's population) are not busy setting up clandestine cells to promote Islamist fundamentalism, they want to divide Bulgaria and set up their own independent enclaves. They want to restore the Ottoman Empire and enslave us all again. If it hadn't been for the Turks, Bulgaria would have been as developed as, say, Luxembourg. This is, of course, the language of Volen Siderov, but it is also the language of many Bulgarians who would not vote for Volen Siderov but who still wince at the mention of the big T.
There is a relatively innocuous way to explore the extent of the Bulgarian fear of Turks. Take your Bulgarian friends to a Turkish restaurant, then ask what dishes the Bulgarians make better than the Turks.
NIGHTMARE NO. 8
Some elderly folk will be sure to remember that Jews used to kill Christian children and suck their blood for Easter. They don't any more. What they do, however, is conquer the world in general and Bulgaria in particular through banks, conspiracies and covert alliances (most often with Freemasons). Full stop. Now for a Jewish joke.
NIGHTMARE NO. 9
GO OUT WITH WET HAIR
Especially in November, this can be even more hazardous than sitting in a draught. Going out with wet hair can cause encephalitis at best and sudden death at worst. Under no circumstance should you practice it, or allow anyone you care about to do it. Take every necessary precaution not to have any moisture in your hair before you venture out into the cold. Or else!
NIGHTMARE NO. 10
Civil servants all over the world are either competent or incompetent. If you are in Germany and you find yourself confronted with a civil servant whom you consider insufficiently trained to serve you, there is an easy way out. Ask them to write down what they are telling you.
This doesn't work in Bulgaria. Bulgarian civil servants will be transfixed if anyone asks them to write things down. They will say they can't and they will refer you to their superior who will not be there and, even if he is there, he will not see you because his "reception hours" are on Wednesday afternoon. It is highly unlikely you will be able to walk out with anything in writing from any Bulgarian office.
Why? As much as Bulgarians don't care for the written word if they see it in newspapers or on street signs (in either case it doesn't mean much), so are Bulgarian officials scared of it because putting something in writing automatically means they assume responsibility.
The act of taking responsibility is in itself to be avoided as much as humanly possible because later on someone may hold you accountable. The most efficient way to do that is to make someone else responsible.
Many Bulgarians from all walks of life have mastered the game of "responsibility transferal." This game has become so popular that anyone who refuses to play it will be viewed with suspicion (see Nightmare No. 2).
Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov elevated the transferral of responsibility to an art form. He never assumed responsibility for anything he did (except when he opened sports halls and cut ribbons in front of stretches of asphalt road). He always and instantly transferred the responsibility to someone or something else. Most often it was his predecessors. Sometimes it was the weather – or the vets who let the street dogs of Sofia roam free. One of the main reasons why he remained so popular until he was forced to resign by people who wanted to hold someone, anyone responsible was his virtuoso skills in putting the blame on other people, including some of his closest associates. It worked. It still works now.