Your RDA of Irony

Bulgarian Memories

I just learned that my humor does not readily translate into Bulgarian. 

You may remember that I commemorated the battle of Kleidon.  (For most of you, it was also an introduction.)

For a Bulgarian reader, however, the story was all too familiar.  In a polite rebuke, she objected to my depiction of the battle between her ancestors and the Byzantines.  (Of course, her ancestors lost; she probably would have ignored me if the Bulgars had won.)  In fact, I had noted that history had a snobbish bias toward the “civilized” Byzantines, who behaved with memorable savagery to their Bulgar prisoners–blinding 15,000 of them and letting them grope their way home. 

Bulgaria would soon be part of the Byzantine Empire. Basil certainly earned the epithet “the Bulgar-Slayer.” Ironically, history looks at the Emperor with a certain respect and even approval. After all, the Byzantines were more erudite and sophisticated than the Bulgarians. The more civilized are always the good guys.

I explained that my humor may have been lost in translation and asked her what was the Bulgarian word for irony.  (Ironically, their word is “irony.”)  I reassured her of my respect for her country and told her what a wonderful time I had there when I was a shaggy vagabond traversing Europe.

What was so memorable about Bulgaria?  The people: they really spoiled me.  In 1975, Americans were rather rare in Eastern Europe and almost unknown in Bulgaria.  Why did I decide to go there?  The country was unavoidable if I intended to travel from Greece to Istanbul (and you know that I wouldn’t miss my beloved Constantinople).  You could get a visa at the border; apparently Bulgaria felt so overlooked that it was not worried about western spies.  Of course, the Iron Curtain country did impose some restrictions on me.  While there, I was expected to report to an Intourist Office every three days.  And believe it or not, that was my first encounter with Bulgarian hospitality. 

As I left the Sofia train station to make my way to the Intourist Office, I found myself confronted and confounded by the Cyrillic alphabet.  I could not read the street signs; I was instantly lost.  Someone at the train station  had told me what bus to take.  As I was struggling to figure out what the fare was, someone paid for the lost young American.  No one on the bus could speak English, but everyone was nodding and smiling.  Through some sort of sign language, they asked me where I was from.  And they were looking out for me, letting me know when I  had reached my stop.

Of course, you would expect the Intourist Office to be an obvious facade for the Secret Police, and I suppose anyone on the staff could have killed me with a single karate chop.  However, I have found myself more threatened by Tourist Bureaus in Austria and France.  No, the Bulgarians seemed very pleased by the presence of an actual American tourist.  (And someone did speak English.)  Intourist’s services included arranging a place for me to stay–yes, the better to spy on me–and I was booked into a boarding house.  I would be staying with a real Bulgarian family.

On the way to the boarding house, I got lost again.  In the Cyrillic miasma, I took the wrong bus.  My fellow passengers included two college students, one of whom spoke some French, so at least I could understand the depths of my predicament.  Rather than abandon the lost American, they got off the bus and personally guided me to my boarding house.  My Francophone rescuer did ask one thing of me:  to meet them in Sofia’s Central Park in two days.  His girlfriend spoke excellent English and she would be our translator; he had so much that he wanted to ask the real and rare  American.

I stayed with a family of four: parents and two adolescent children.  Once again, my nationality conferred a charisma on me.  Everyone had questions for me, and one of the teenagers did speak English.  The landlady offered me free meals, so I gratefully accepted the accompanying interrogation.  There was a dichotomy in the nature of the questions.  The young Bulgarians, raised on Communism, wanted to know when the American workers would collectivize our factories; I told them, “Never, the unions would not allow it.”  Their parents, remembering the Hollywood films before the World War, asked me about their favorite actors.  I had to tell them that Tyrone Powers was dead but I could reassure them that Alice Faye was alive and well. 

Somehow I did find my way to Sofia’s Central Park, and there were my two rescuers along with English-speaking girlfriend.  We talked for hours, and the general topic was the arts.  They were very excited about an American film recently shown in Sofia.  The Bulgarian government evidently thought that “The Godfather” was a perfect portrait of American life.  I agreed that the film was excellent but not quite typical of most Americans; they suspected as much.  They wanted to know what I knew of Bulgarian literature; you can guess my awkward response.  I did tell them that Russian writers were very popular in college curricula.  Perhaps a little vicarious Slavic glory was better than none.  They told me how popular Ernest Hemingway was in Bulgaria.  They were surprised to learn that Hemingway was out of fashion in American academia: he was considered sexist and simplistic.

Given their knowledge of Hemingway, I was intrigued to know what had passed the government censors.  I asked them about a sympathetic Russian character in “For Whom the Bell Tolls .”  In my unexpurgated edition of the novel, Hemingway wrote as an epilogue that the Russian would return to the Soviet Union and be killed in the purges.  I asked my Bulgarian friends if that detail was in their edition of the novel.  Their answer was “No.”   They did not question or challenge me on this point.  On the contrary, they said nothing but nodded, accepting both my honesty and its political awkwardness.  The rest of our conversation must have been innocuous because I can’t remember it, but I have not forgotten them or the many other people who showed me their warmth and interest.  (Even one of the Intourist staff gossiped with me about “Dr. Zhivago”; she heard that it was a beautiful film.) 

I had planned to spend three days in Sofia.  I stayed five.  How could I leave when I felt like the guest of honor?

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Delightfully told, Eugene!

    That must’ve been one whale of a summer abroad.

    How’s about next we hear of the young Eugene (Portrait of the Ironist As a Young Man) and his first views of, yes, Constantinople. (I”stanbul” my old Aunt Matilda’s pet goat!)

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Bob,

      Just get a Greek to complain (politely) about my treatment of the Byzantines. Somehow that works as an impetus.

      And don’t try passing yourself off as a Kincaidolis.


      p.s. I spent ten months abroad–and went through three Eurrail passes. Ah youth….

  2. Rafferty Barnes says:

    I had a friend who was a Mormon missionary in Bulgaria in the early 90s, and she too has only the fondest memories of the people and the country.

  3. Eugene Finerman says:

    I just remembered another Bulgarian adventure. I was in a sandwich shop and found myself in a conversation with several Arab exchange students. They spoke English and identified themselves as premeds. In hindsight, I have to wonder if they really were medical students. Bulgaria had a reputation as a training center for terrorists. (Where do you think I acquired my sense of humor?) Were those young men actually terrorists? They did have ask how much money could doctors make in America. No, they really were premeds.


  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply